September is National Preparedness Month, a month that’s in the middle of the June 1 through November 30 hurricane season. In 2018, the theme of National Preparedness Month is “Disasters Happen. Prepare Now. Learn How.” In this post, we’ll share tips to help you create a plan to protect your important documents in case of emergency. In reality, emergencies can happen during any time of the year so, no matter when you read this post, now is the best time to get started creating your own document-protection plan. If you’re a member of one of our legal insurance plans, you can take advantage of the legal assistance with document preparation your plan provides.
What to do if documents are missing
Before we go into depth about which documents to protect and how to protect them, we want to provide helpful information for people who may have already lost their documents. Steps to take include:
- Make a list of every important missing document, yours or from any of your dependents; you can refer to the list we’ve created in the next section to help you brainstorm.
- Consult emergency management websites for help, including the site of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). If you have suffered losses from a major disaster, FEMA regularly posts resources and ways you can receive help related to that specific disaster. Also check USA.gov, which has information on replacing vital documents, and the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, which offers information by state about how to replace personal documents.
- For any documents not listed in these resources, you will likely need to individually contact companies and institutions to ask about replacement procedures.
Organizing important documents
Whether you need to replace documents or are making a list of documents that should be part of your emergency preparedness plan, consider the following:
- Driver’s licenses and Social Security cards
- Birth certificates and adoption papers
- Green cards, work permits, naturalization documents and any other citizenship-related papers
- Marriage licenses and divorce decrees
- Child custody paperwork
- Military paperwork, including current IDs and discharge paperwork
- Pet medical records, including vaccination records and chip ID numbers
- Insurance policies or at least the policy numbers and insurance company contact information for:
- Renters or homeowners insurance
- Auto insurance
- Life insurance
- Health insurance
- Flood and/or earthquake insurance
- Disability and/or long-term care insurance
- Property records, including real estate deeds, rental/lease agreements and mortgage deeds
- Registration documents and titles for cars, trucks, boats, RVs, and motorcycles
- Lists and photo documentation of household belongings
- Medical records, including immunizations; prescription information, including the name and dosage of each medication; health insurance ID cards; and contact information for all medical providers
- Estate planning documents, including wills/living wills, trusts, power of attorney documentation, contact information for attorneys, and funeral pre-planning documentation
- Financial documentation, including the opening two pages for federal and state tax returns for the past two years; banking account information, including account numbers and contact information; credit card information; stock and bond certificates; investment documentation; retirement documentation; and financial advisor information
- Miscellaneous records, such as backups of crucial computer files, username/passwords, safety deposit keys, personal address books, account numbers and contact information for utilities, important phone numbers of friends and family members (don’t rely just on your cell phones) and more
- Any important documents unique to you that aren’t on this list; these can include treasured family letters and so forth
Identifying which documents are crucial to protect is an important step one. For your next step:
- Gather all this information together.
- Make photocopies of paper documents.
- Create backup disks of digital material and/or store it in the cloud.
- Organize the materials, perhaps by putting paper ones in logical order in three-ring binders with plastic sleeves that allow you to insert documents.
- Place the original materials in a safety deposit box, a fireproof or waterproof lock box, or safe. Having documents in more than one physical location often makes sense.
- Organize copies into a portable file system that you can easily grab if evacuating.
- Keep this portable file near other emergency supplies or another place you can easily access.
- If you aren’t able to grab and go, you can have peace of mind, knowing that the originals are safe, even if you can’t immediately access them.
- Make sure someone you trust (or more than one person) knows your system, including how and where paper and digital documents are stored.
- Remember to periodically update documentation in your binders and digital storage locations.
Added benefits of your emergency plan for legal documents
As you gather and organize important legal documents—assuming, of course, that you aren’t currently involved in an emergency or pending emergency situation—it makes sense to also review these documents to make sure information is current. For instance, this is a good time to review your estate plan to make sure it reflects any changes in your financial and life situation since the documents were created or last updated, and that they are in accordance with your wishes today.
When you review your last will and testament, for example, are you satisfied with who you’ve listed as executor? Do you still want your assets distributed in the way that’s currently detailed? If you have minor children, are you satisfied that you’ve appropriately protected them? Has your financial or family situation changed in a way requires an updated will? If you have a revocable trust, are beneficiaries up to date? Has any newly acquired property been titled appropriately?
Then there’s your living will and powers of attorney. Take a second look at the people listed to make medical decisions for you if you could no longer make your own. Does this still make sense? What about those you’ve listed to make financial and legal decisions on your behalf if you can no longer make them yourself? What about advance directives that specify what medical actions you would or would not want taken on your behalf? Do you still agree with what’s been documented?
If you’re satisfied with everything, that will provide you with peace of mind. And, if you see that changes need to be made, you can proactively take care of them. Or, this review might allow you to spot gaps in your estate planning and allow you to appropriately address them. If, for example, you don’t have a will, then state laws would likely determine how your assets would be distributed, and they may not match what you’d like to happen. Or, if you haven’t named guardians for your minor children, the local courts would choose one. This, again, may not be in accordance with your wishes and could lead to a custody battle.
Without a living will, your wishes about pain medication and/or actions to be taken (or not taken) if you’re incapacitated may not occur. Without powers of attorney, healthcare and/or financial decisions made may not be what you’d want.
Benefits of a legal insurance plan
Yes, you can get fill-in-the-blank estate planning documents, but something this important should be handled under the guidance of an experienced attorney. As another plus, when an attorney creates legal documents for you, these documents are automatically backed up because he or she will keep them on file as well.
For many people, accessing the services of a qualified attorney may be beyond their budgets, which makes having a legal benefits plan an excellent choice, allowing plan members to take advantage of affordable benefits, including with estate planning.
If you haven’t benefited from a legal insurance plan in the past, it’s comparable to benefit packages that provide access to preventive medical or dental services. For an affordable monthly fee, you would have access to services provided by a qualified local attorney.
Attorneys in the U.S. Legal Services network must meet strict criteria, including having a minimum of five years of experience. Other criteria include proper state bar licensing with no record of complaints or disciplinary history.
U.S. Legal Services offers the Family Defender™ legal insurance plan for people like you and families like yours. This plan provides members and their families with a wide array of legal services, including representation for divorce, child support and custody issues, bankruptcy, traffic violations, real estate transactions, estate planning and more.
Find more information about Family Defender™ and the ways this voluntary workplace benefit can empower you and your loved ones.
Employers also benefit when they offer a voluntary group legal benefits plan. When employees know they have ready access to legal assistance, they can focus on their work, rather than needing to put their time and attention towards ways to manage their legal challenges.
The workplace also benefits because of:
- Less wasted work time
- Better job performance
- Lower healthcare costs
- Less absenteeism
You’ll be able to offer benefits that desired job candidates want, with an easy-to-administer plan available at no cost to the employer. Contact us today, online or by calling 1.800.356.LAWS.